Understanding the Fear of Nuclear Power - Part 2

Rob Stein at the Washington Post adds some more reasons to the nuclear pile.

There are many reasons why humans fear radiation so intensely. One reason is because radiation is silent, invisible and odorless. Another is because radiation is associated with cancer, which itself is one of the most feared words. Another reason is that in accidents, as opposed to medical treatments, exposure to radiation is involuntary. Other reasons are the searing images of victims of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, a generation raised fearing Cold War-mushroom-cloud annihilation and the way radiation is portrayed by popular culture.

“In the movies and in comic books, people getting exposed to radiation turn into monsters,” said John Boice Jr., a radiation expert at the International Epidemiology Unit in Rockville.

Invisibility is especially interesting to me because there seems to be a multivalent connotation to “invisibleness” that needs further exploration. There are many invisible risks that we encounter everyday but these risks don’t seem to result in the same level of fear.

On the one hand you have the risks of automobile transportation which is rarely mentioned in the media. The number of fatal crashes stays consistently in the 30,000-40,000 range since 1994 and the total number of deaths ranges from 33,000-43,000.

The risk of driving becomes invisible because it is so habitual. So many of us drive so often that we naturally ignore the risk in the same way that we automatize the physical reflexes needed to control a car. Habit conserves some cognitive resources, those that would’ve caused anxiety, but at the expense of dulling our sense of danger.

The one exception to the media silence on the dangers of automobiles is drunk driving. Part of which can be explained by the activism of groups like MADD and also the dispositional psychological explanation that people who drink too much could control their addiction if they really wanted to.

So there is a sense of invisibility that connects to the idea of the common and habituation. Events, things, and objects that habitually encountered become part of normal life and may disappear from everyday consciousness. They only reappear when they break or become diseased.